By Charlie Bricker
With a combined 15-5 record (as of Friday) and with Andy Roddick and James Blake ruling themselves out of Davis Cup, John Isner and Sam Querrey richly deserved the call they got this week to represent the U.S. against Serbia, March 5-7. But on clay? Are they ready for that?
Can these two big trees (Isner is 6-foot-9, Querry 6-foot-6), who have a combined clay court career record of 9-19, play on dirt, with both having to face world No. 2 Novak Djokovic?
Coach Craig Boynton isn’t speaking for Querrey, but here’s what he has to say about his guy: “I really believe clay can be a very suitable surface for John.”
Before you scoff, hear Boynton out.
“First, the ball is going to slow down and give him more time. The bounce is going to be higher, which should put a lot of balls, because of his height, right in his strike zone. And the clay will make his kick serve more effective.”
Some of this is a coach understandably pumping up his player. But there’s a lot to be said about the Isner serve (he’s averaging near 20 aces a match) and, especially, the Isner kicker, which he sometimes throws in on first serve for a change-up.
It’s a bonafide jumping bean which, in his third-round upset of Gael Monfils at the Australian Open, kicked over the 6-foot-2 Frenchman’s head — a shot that caused a buzz in the men’s locker room for days.
And last December, at an exhibition in Baltimore, Isner was playing doubles with John McEnroe against the Bryan brothers. From the ad court, Isner kicked one at Mike Bryan, who looked as if he was fending off a mosquito. After Bryan’s return slapped into the net, brother Bob got down on his hands and knees and Mike climbed up on his back, waving his racket in jest.
As for Querrey, he not only has an equally prodigious serve, but a more solid baseline game than Isner off the backhand side. But where Isner at least had some junior experiences on clay growing up in the South, Q is strictly a southern California hardcourts boy.
No one is going to pretend that either of these U.S. players is going to reach the final four or even the last eight at the French Open. But they have weapons. They have big serves, and there is no undervaluing what that means, even on clay.
I don’t think captain Patrick McEnroe has any intangible worries about Querrey, who has played a couple Davis Cup matches, losing both to Spain a year and a half ago on clay. But, in that tie, he took the opening set from Rafa Nadal before losing in four — and I take that to mean he went out there without any significant nerves. Not to dismiss his other loss, a 7-6, 7-6 defeat to Feliciano Lopez, but it was a dead rubber. Spain already had clinched.
Isner, however, is debuting, so perhaps there is a bit of uncertainty about him in a road match. When Isner takes the court against either Djokovic or Viktor Troicki on March 3, it will be only the sixth clay court match of his ATP pro career, and he probably will look a bit raw out there at the start.
Still, this is “a dream come true” for Isner. Not an original phrase from him, but one that is obviously heartfelt and, in a way, a continuation of Isner’s personal love of team tennis. This is, or have you forgotten, the man who led the University of Georgia to the NCAA championship a few years ago.
If he continues to play as he has in 2010, he’ll at least carry some confidence into this tie. He has wins over Tommy Robredo on the way to a title at Auckland, a win over Monfils at the Australian Open, and is at a career-best ranking of No. 25 playing Memphis this week.
McEnroe knows he’s got a couple of clay court ingenues, but he’s counting on their serving to keep them close. Yes, clay has a way of gripping those service bounces and making the ball stand up more. But the hope is that those 130 mph blasts that produce aces on hardcourts and grass will still be big enough to produce aces or weak returns on clay.
“I actually don’t mind playing on clay. I feel my serve is big enough that I can hold it,” Isner says. And that’s going to be key for both men. No one expects them to trade blows from the baseline and win the majority of long rallies.
Isner is running at 67 percent break points saved this year. That’s how effective he’s been serving and, to put that in perspective, Roger Federer is at 72 percent.
Three years ago, Isner broke into pro tennis, beating an aging but still effective Tim Henman, then Tommy Haas and Monfils to reach the final in Washington, where he lost to Roddick. The rest of the year was filled with great optimism.
Here was a young man who badly needed a more effective backhand and more lower-body strength, but who had the maturity of having gone to college, who had a blockbuster serve and who was already a pretty effective volleyer. He had tools. He had weapons. All he needed was refinement.
\As often happens with college players, he went through a tough year and a half of adjustment to the pro game before things came together at Indian Wells in 2009, where he defeated Monfils, Marat Safin and went to two tiebreaks in a loss to Juan Martin Del Potro.
He’s been ascending since and, with only moderate points to defend before the clay court season, it won’t be difficult for Isner to put a strong move on the top 20 in the coming weeks.
At his size, Isner has some built-in challenges and energy/slash/diet is one of them. That’s a lot of body to haul around a court for several hours. But, says Boynton, “He’s put a lot of time in the gym. He’s getting stronger and fitter every day. John has attacked every single one of his issues head-on.”
On court, his service has become more varied without losing its pace. But nothing has advanced more than his volleying and his backhand. He’s still got a dangerous inside-out forehand, and he’ll go to it when the opportunity is right. But he’s no longer wary of using his backhand — not just as a rally shot but to force points.
Querrey, ranked No. 31 this week, is fully recovered from the near career-ending glass injury he suffered late in 2009, but his game isn’t. He came to Memphis only 3-4, though a 7-6 third-set loss to Roddick in the San Jose semis a week ago suggests he’s not far from hitting form.
Now, 22, he broke into the top 100 almost exactly three years ago, had his nose bloodied a few times by top players in 2008, then reached a new level in 2009, finishing the year 41-23 while reaching six finals, winning one. In September, in a freakish accident in Thailand, he fell through a glass table, coming millimeters from severing a nerve that probably would have ended his tennis career.
He’s 0-2 vs. Djokovic and 0-1 vs.Troicki. Isner is 0-1 with Troicki and has never played Djokovic.
This is probably only a partial changing of the guard. Roddick isn’t playing because he’s reluctant to change surfaces this early in the year, and Blake while he’s got a wealth of Davis Cup experience, might not have been a choice even if he had elected not to play this first round.
It wouldn’t be hard to argue effectively that both Isner and Querrey are playing better than Blake at this point in James’ career.